I came across this interesting article about the history of Avalon Hill, published on a small Earthlink site called the Academic Gaming Review, by Peter L. de Rosa. This was originally written in 1998 and published on his Earthlink blog in 2002. I reached out to Peter and got his permission to repost the article here for posterity.
In the subsequent years since the article, boardgaming has blown up. Much of this is thanks to blockbuster titles like Ticket To Ride, Puerto Rico, Agricola, Dominion, and Pandemic – all released after this was written. Comparing the boardgame industry/hobby from 2002 to 2017 is like comparing the airline industry in 1950 to today. There are now over a thousand new games coming out every year, from both major and minor publishers and through self-publishing channels. Wargaming is also in a golden age. GMT has grown into arguably the largest wargame publisher, flanked by companies like Multi-man Publishing, Legion Wargames, Hexasim, Columbia Games, Compass Games, Worthington, DVG, Vuca, Decision Games, White Dog, Clash Of Arms, and many others.
I wasn’t really an Avalon Hill customer at the time (though I’ve acquired a few things since then). I was pretty young during their heyday and deep into Role Playing Games when they approached their end. However, the story of Avalon Hill, which published a lot of important titles in the 70’s and 80’s, is a good one for interested gamers to know. Peter gives a thorough account of the messy details of what happened to the giant, as well as a bit of conjecture about the future.
The Fall of Avalon Hill
It began with a short notice posted on the Avalon Hill web site on August 4, 1998 by some just fired employees. The announcement stated simply that Monarch Avalon had sold its Avalon Hill Game Company division to Hasbro for $6 million, and that Monarch had terminated the AH game design people. Though the notice would be pulled almost immediately by AH management, it stayed up long enough for word to spread across the Internet faster than a Clinton scandal report. Confirmation from Hasbro, Monarch Avalon, and various financial sources soon followed, leaving wargamers facing the awful reality that Avalon Hill, which began and nourished the wargame hobby, and The General, which shaped it, were dead.
It was no secret among historical gamers that wargaming had been in serious decline since 1980 or so. In part, this was a natural evolution. Every decade a new form of the hobby emerges and recruits the bulk of the new gamers. In the 1960s the fad was wargames, in the 1970s, RPGs, computer games exploded in the 1980s, the 1990s brought CCGs, and the new century has seen the German game phenomenon. Battered by these new entertainment forms, wargaming declined just as miniatures, the 1950s king, did when Tactics II emerged on the landscape. Neither SPI nor AH adapted well to the new competition, and SPI paid for its primitive business practices with its surrender to TSR, the RPG king. Unlike boardgames, role and card playing systems tend to produce one dominant form, and TSR and Wizards of the Coast had their respective fields locked up. Challenging these monoliths required something really different, such as Car Wars. Even TSR fell victim to the changing adventure gaming market when Magic ensnared an entire generation, and eventually TSR itself.
Avalon Hill’s response to the new circumstances was somewhat different until the very end. Charles Roberts had always seen his company as publisher of a variety of games for adults, and half of his first releases were not wargames, but products such as Verdict, Management, and Dispatcher. A. Eric Dott continued this strategy aggressively in the 1970s, acquiring both the 3M and the Sports Illustrated lines as a means of anchoring AH’s Leisure Time and sports divisions. This worked to some extent. AH’s best-selling games were Outdoor Survival (it did well as a Dungeons & Dragons supplement, although not intended to be that) and Facts in Five, not PanzerBlitz and Squad Leader. As for the other forms, there were things like card-based military games, a role-playing system (RuneQuest), and sporadic attempts at computer games. The latter effort had little success. Even wargamers would be hard pressed to name more than a few AH computer products, and nothing ever came close to impacting the general public like SimCity or Quake.
Francis Tresham designed Civilization and manufactured it through Hartland Trefoil in 1980. In 1981, Avalon Hill obtained the US license and it sold well. Advanced Civilization followed in 1992. In 1994, AH announced it would shift its emphasis to computer games and would convert many of its titles to that format. The better-selling manual games were naturals for this status, and Advanced Civilization appeared in 1995. In April 1997, AH announced that Activision would receive the rights to the name Civilization and produce a new version.
The problem with this all this was Sid Meier’s Civilization, a MicroProse product. SMC is wildly popular and has even attracted Usenet get-a-life groups. MicroProse, in financial difficulties of its own, was not the least bit happy with AH’s plans and apparently made nasty noises. AH and Activision sued MicroProse over the name in November 1997. In December, MicroProse bought Hartland Trefoil, Francis Tresham’s services, and all the rights to Civilization and the 1829 rail game system (AH did 1830, also a decent seller). In short, no more licenses. On July 14, 1998, Avalon Hill capitulated, turning all rights over to MicroProse and agreeing to pay them $411,000. AH could sell its remaining Civilization inventory, but no more after that. MicroProse then licensed Activision to produce Civilization: Call to Power. According to rumors, the AH payment allowed MicroProse to meet its last payrolls. Jackson Dott, AH’s President, announced that he was happy with the settlement. It is hard to see why, unless you consider that MicroProse could have forced Avalon Hill to not sell any more copies whatsoever. Since the two board versions sell for $75 combined, AH could have recovered its 400 grand by selling about 5500 sets, especially since word of the agreement set off a rush to buy the last remaining manual copies. It is also possible that Activision had paid Avalon Hill earlier for its license, and AH could have kept these funds. Maybe they kept the rights to 1830. Another possibility will be stated later.
What wargamers know as The Avalon Hill Game Company is actually a division of Monarch Avalon, Inc. The association goes back to 1963 when Charles Roberts’ Avalon Hill went bankrupt. Roberts paid off the small creditors and turned the company over to Monarch Services (the printer) and the Smith Box Company (they made the boxes and put together the games), who were his biggest creditors. The two companies kept Avalon Hill going and, in effect, preserved the hobby. Eric Dott and Monarch eventually bought the Smith people out and incorporated, complete with a listing on NASDAQ. The new company offered a certain synergy and some diversification. A recent project is the publication of Girls’ Life, a female version of Boys’ Life magazine.
All incorporated companies must file financial reports and Monarch Avalon’s statements offer a concise summary of wargaming’s fortunes. Of interest here is the July 1998 statement which offers a concise summary of a company in trouble. Monarch Avalon lost $585 in fiscal 1996, made $179 in 1997, and lost $1,725 this year, out of total sales of $8,231. (All figures are ‘000s.) Monarch’s healthiest section is Girls’ Life, whose sales increased by $578 in 1997, and $1,620 in 1998, and turned a profit in that year. On the other hand, the printing division, mainly envelopes, saw losses in 1996-1998. The gaming division made money in 1996 ($369) and 1997 ($364), but lost $1,489 in 1998. Boardgame sales declined in the last two years, but the computer division fell by 61% and over a million dollars in 1998. Total game sales in 1998 were only $2,844. In short, every dollar spent on making and selling games brought in less than 66 cents. Without Civilization, and possibly 1830, none of this was going to get better.
Hasbro essentially owns everything related to games everywhere. They have Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers, Hasbro Interactive, and lots of other toy-related brands. On August 4, the Avalon Hill Game Company became part of their empire, for a mere $6 million. Eric Dott told the Baltimore Sun that Hasbro approached him about buying the company and he took the offer, probably after about seven seconds of thought. Hasbro got the AH and Victory Game imprints, inventory, copyrights, and trademarks. Monarch got the cash and had to change its name back to Monarch Services. The sale may explain why Avalon settled the MicroProse situation on unfavorable terms. From July 14 to August 4 is only three weeks and most acquisitions take much longer than that to reach agreement. Companies hate to inherit lawsuits, and it is possible that Hasbro told AH to settle it or else. Remember how Dave Arneson’s suit against TSR was resolved around the time of WOTC’s takeover? In any case, the Civilization question became moot very quickly. On August 12, Hasbro bought MicroProse for $70 million. Usenet jokes about Hasborg’s progress seemed to be on target, especially after Habro subsequently absorbed WOTC and TSR.
Hasbro’s acquisition of MicroProse gave it more products, especially prominent ones, increased technical talent, and more distribution channels. What did they get from Avalon Hill? The wargame market is small. AH-style games which sold over 100,000 copies routinely in 1960s, now sell maybe 10,000 with luck. Even 200,000 copies is small by Hasbro standards, as witnessed by its closing most of the Gamemaster line. Avalon Hill does have some name recognition among baby boomers and distribution paths to hobby stores, neither of which would seem to be worth much to Hasbro, a multibillion dollar company.
So why buy AH? Hasbro never said nothing officially, but Tom Dusenberry of Hasbro Interactive did reply to another gamer’s questions with the news that Hasbro would continue to print Avalon Hill board and computer games. So far it has grouped several games, including Acquire, Axis & Allies, Cosmic Encounter, Diplomacy, History of the World, and Risk under the Avalon Hill brand. Hasbro has licensed several games to Multi-Man Publishing and maintains a support site for some of the older games. The Boardgamer has tried to take over The General‘s mission of supporting AH titles, especially the out of print ones. If Hasbro does reprint any other AH board games, chances are they will be the Leisure Time and sports ones. Keep in mind the success of Facts in Five. Some Avalon Hill titles will probably be adapted to computer versions. It’s still the hot game market, and the AH brand can only help. Other games may be licensed to smaller publishers, as was done with Pit. In any case, Hasbro paid only $6 million for AH. With this came the rights to about 300 games. Hasbro has many possibilities for recovering its investment, and probably will. One or two computer hits adapted from the Avalon Hill inventory should do it.
The Future of Wargaming
As noted earlier, historical boardgames are fading. The decline started around 1980 and the 1982 fall of SPI was the result of this trend, not its cause. SPI’s collapse was unsettling by any definition, but the Avalon Hill crash is much worse. Gamers always assumed that TAHGC would be around, somehow, somewhere. Reality as we know it is now much different. Flying Buffalo is now the oldest wargame company, and until further notice, Rick Loomis should be referred to as the reigning Ironman of the hobby.
It is my belief that adventure gaming can still support two large (by wargaming standards) companies. In 1998, that meant AH and WOTC. The market, distributors, and stores still exist. Since it is unlikely that Hasbro will do much with wargames, another publisher can take advantage of this opportunity. Such a company should be ambitious and overconfident, bordering on oblivious. Right now there is Decision Games and the slow growing GMT. Both could fill the vacuum in the hobby.
Avalon Hill once served as the center of wargaming. SPI’s fall had taken the other nexus away, making AH even more important in recent years. Hasbro will not do this, and something else is needed. Regardless of which game company fills the production vacuum, other centers, such as Web-Grognards and ConsimWorld, now have a more important role to play. This can also include the Strategy Gaming Society which traditionally operates as a national wargamer network. Other centers may arise. It is up to wargamers to develop them and rebuild the hobby.
Sources for this article include various Internet postings on Consim-L, rec.games.board, and rec.games.diplomacy, as well as the Yahoo!, Baltimore Sun, MicroProse, and Blackwater Station sites. Other sources include several Generals, Avalon Hill catalogs, Pimper’s, and Strategy & Tactics 33. For an Avalon Hill ludography see Dan Farrow’s list.
The Fall of Avalon Hill was written in 1998, and little has changed since then. Board wargaming continues to decline as gamers flock to mobile and Euro-style board games. The closest thing to a center of wargaming remains Decision Games. They publish three magazine-with-games, each with around 15,000 circulation. While this doesn’t sound bad, it should be noted that each magazine, including the venerable Strategy & Tactics, publishes a nongame edition also, and these versions outsell the game ones. GMT is still around, and there have been periodic attempts to publish wargame magazines, but overall there really is not much out there these days. The Strategy Gaming Society, which published the original version of the article, is moribund. On the brighter side, ConsimWorld and Web-Grognards still endure, and there always new companies with new products. It is safe to say that wargaming will be around for a while, but who knows how many will notice it?
The original version of this article appeared in the Strategist 29 (September 1998):7-8. The Strategist is the newsletter of the Strategy Gaming Society. It was subsequently republished in 2002 on the Academic Gaming Review website. Article reposted here with permission from Peter L. de Rosa.